Eugene Weekly : Food : 3.4.10

Home Sweet Home Cooking
Café Ari Rang’s Korean specialties leave us singing for more
By Jennifer Burns-Levin

An old Korean folk song tells the story of two lovers forced to separate. The woman wishes her lover’s feet will fail only a few miles into the journey, so he’ll have to return home. Café Ari Rang, which take its name from this song, is yet another way to return home for South Korean natives June Jang and her husband, Hee Park. And luckily, they take us with them.

Jang and Park, a sweet couple who remind me of grandparents, have lived mostly in Oregon for their seven years in the U.S. They opened the charming Korean restaurant, their first, about a year ago. Jang serves as chef, and Park serves the customers.

Through her sister as translator, Jang told me that she serves the same dishes at the restaurant that she does at home. Popular items include spicy chicken, Korean barbecue (bulgogi) and teriyaki. One customer was so thrilled by the spicy pork bowl, he took a picture of it, and the photo hangs at the window behind the cash register. Known for its bento box meals that include a main dish and side dishes of tempura, gyoza dumpling, California roll sushi, salad and miso soup, Café Ari Rang ensures that you won’t leave hungry.

But the real reason to visit the restaurant is for its more unusual offerings. Café Ari Rang is at its best with its authentic Korean specialties, dishes you won’t see served elsewhere in town. Of the choices on the seasonal specials menu, Jang reports that zzambong, a “very spicy” noodle soup with seafood, has been the biggest hit. One customer comes in every other night to eat it. Zzajang mjun is an unusual noodle dish with a dark, thick black bean sauce that might offer a challenge to diners.

Two beef-based soups are also featured on the specials menu. One is a rich, milky soup made by boiling shin bones for several days, until the minerals are leached from the bones. The soup, considered a health tonic by many Koreans, is served simply with wheat noodles and green onions. The other beef soup is my favorite dish of all: a hearty beef short rib soup with glass noodles and egg. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the latter includes a Korean jujube fruit and some white radish. Although sometimes the short rib meat can be a bit tough, at its very best it falls off the bone in juicy, chewy pieces. Lunching on these beef soups on a wintery, rainy day can’t be beat.

The regular menu has many authentic specialties as well. Spicy food lovers will enjoy “Kimchi Meet the Pork,” and not only for the name. A soft tofu stew with seafood will keep you warm well into the night. Jang recommends the bi bim bap for vegetarians. Served throughout Korea either hot in a deep, cast iron bowl, or cold, bi bim bap combines seasoned vegetables, egg and Korean hot sauce over rice. Jang often emerges from the kitchen and help diners mix up the dish in the traditional way — sometimes to the surprise of the diners.

Jang has a background in Japanese cooking, so you’ll also see agedashi tofu and several domburi dishes (meat and eggs simmered in sauce and served over rice). Also impressive is her university degree in family nutrition and home economics, which is surely the inspiration for the health-conscious choices on the menu and lack of MSG, as well as the restaurant’s secret power: homemade kimchi.

Jang makes her own kimchi fresh in the restaurant, offering two kinds: a fragrant cabbage kimchi with ginger and garlic, and a sweeter white radish kimchi.  High in vitamins, calcium and iron, kimchi is fermented in a spicy sauce. Jang uses a bit of sugar, but none of the customary pickled fish sauce (for American tastes, she says). One can even buy a quart to take home. My only wish: more! Larger Korean restaurants in places like L.A. will often have six or more types served with meals, and since Jang’s kimchi is so delicious, I fantasize about trying every kind she can make.

Housed in a former donut shop, the restaurant is located in the triangle where Broadway branches off to become Coburg Road at the Ferry Street Bridge. The location does not get much foot traffic, especially at night, but the place is quite cozy, with red designs on the windows, plants and classical music on the sound system.

Café Ari Rang, 485 E. Broadway, Eugene. (541) 302-4542. 10:30 am-9:30 pm Sunday-Friday.

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